He was a Marxist to the core who was equally at home with bourgeois democracy and capitalist ideas. If destiny had been on his side, Jyoti Basu would have become India’s prime minister in 1996.
But that was not to be, thanks to his dogmatic Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) which ruled that no one from its ranks could head a multi-party regime that would not be able to implement Marxist programmes.
Basu swallowed the diktat silently. But within months he questioned the wisdom of fellow Stalinists and described the party’s decision not to form the centre-Left United Front government as a “historic blunder”.
That perhaps was the only time the very ‘bhadralok’, or gentleman, Basu broke the CPI-M’s strict rules of discipline. He got away with it because he was the prima donna of Indian Communism, a product of aristocracy who embraced Marx in London and became the longest serving chief minister in the country.
By the time he gave up the reins of West Bengal in 2000 citing health grounds, Basu had been the chief minister for an incredible 23 uninterrupted years. He was widely respected across the political spectrum. Many a prime minister consulted him on matters of national importance.
Of course he had his critics. But for someone married to an ideology that has had few takers in India, he was one of the most successful politicians in the world’s largest democracy.
Born July 8, 1914, in Kolkata, the son of a doctor was schooled in Loreto and St. Xavier’s. He graduated from the Presidency College of Kolkata with honours in English in 1935.
He then studied law in London where he came in contact with the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), the alma mater of many a Indian Communist.
Basu’s early associates included the veteran British Communists Harry Pollitt, Rajani Palme Dutt and Ben Bradley. In London, he joined the India League and the Federation of Indian Students in Great Britain.
On returning to India, Basu joined the then undivided Communist Party of India (CPI) and in 1944, three years before the British Raj ended, started working among railway workers.
He got into electoral politics in 1946, getting elected to the Bengal Legislative Assembly.
Winning elections then became a habit for Basu. After independence, he was repeatedly elected to the West Bengal legislature, starting in 1952.
When the CPI split in 1964 parallel to the Sino-Soviet break-up, Basu became one of the nine founding politburo members of the more radical CPI-M.
West Bengal was in turmoil in the late 1960s, with a section of the CPI-M revolting in a small West Bengal village known as Naxalbari and igniting a bloody Maoist movement.
Two shaky and shortlived governments took office in West Bengal in 1967 and 1969, and Basu was the deputy chief minister - his first stint as an administrator.
It was in June 1977 that Basu became the West Bengal chief minister heading a multi-party Left Front government, a post he himself decided to give up almost a quarter century later.
Under Basu’s leadership, the CPI-M expanded its social base in villages. His government brought about sweeping agrarian reforms, devolved power to rural bodies or panchayats and undertook rapid agricultural development.
The Marxists soon developed a well-oiled election machinery that ensured victory in one election after another, stunning friends and foes alike and becoming a rarity of sorts in democratic politics around the world.
Basu led the Marxists to power five times in a row in West Bengal.
Along with his scholarly finance minister Ashok Mitra, he vigorously sought more powers for the states. He also played a key role in bringing together non-Congress state governments and parties in the 1980s.
He took an active part in the confabulations in the run up to the formation of non-Congress governments in 1989, 1996, 1997 and 2004, in the process becoming a national figure.
Even after relinquishing office as chief minister in 2000, Basu continued to play a big role in the CPI-M and Indian politics till repeated bouts of illness finally took their toll.